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Tomorrow is Today: Elise DeVito

July 14, 2016


More men suffer from addiction than women, but women tend to move more quickly from using substances to becoming addicted. Women more often find it harder to quit using. And they are more likely to relapse after a quit attempt.

Among the first six junior faculty graduates of our Building Interdisciplinary Research Careers in Women’s Health (BIRCWH) Scholar Program funded by the National Institutes of Health, all former Scholars focused their work on addictive behaviors.

And this installment that profiles this impressive class of researchers, we visit with one of three women who have already contributed significant knowledge toward understanding the roots and dynamics of addiction and how we can better help people who struggle to escape its hold.

Upon completion of her BIRCWH training, Dr. Elise DeVito continued working with the Psychotherapy Development Center for Drug Abuse — a highly productive interdisciplinary research group led by Dr. Kathleen Carroll. Recently, she has also begun a collaboration with The Yale Tobacco Center of Regulatory Science (TCORS), contributing to studies and designing her own to directly inform federal tobacco regulations.

While studying how men and women respond to therapies to treat cocaine addiction as a BIRCWH Scholar, DeVito demonstrated that while women and men experienced similar results from behavioral therapies, women had poorer cocaine use outcomes than men in response to disulfiram, a medication approved for the treatment of alcoholism.

“Women and men are different, and they respond differently to different stimuli,” said WHRY Director Carolyn M. Mazure, Ph.D. “Dr. DeVito’s work has brought us closer to understanding the importance of considering gender when developing treatments for addiction.”

DeVito now hopes to build on previous findings that demonstrate the different reactions of women to nicotine as compared to men and at different points in their menstrual cycles.

“If we’re really going to understand the whole overarching span of addiction — when the highest risks are and how behavior changes over time — we’re going to have to take these biological factors into account,” DeVito said.

DeVito’s latest research includes an investigation into how flavorings in electronic cigarettes might undermine the harsh effects of nicotine that cause some people to avoid smoking. Therefore, flavorings could make the habit more palatable and more likely to lead to addiction. The addition of flavorings could possibly have a disproportional impact on African Americans, who are more likely to have a gene that makes them more sensitive to nicotine’s aversive effects that is possibly masked by the flavorings.

Another investigation focuses on strategies to diminish withdrawal symptoms in women, looking at a smoking cessation medication that may mimic a protective effect found in some women who experience less craving after they quit.

“There is a large amount of data showing clinically relevant bases for biological differences in smoking,” DeVito said. “And yet these data frequently are not included in discussions of possible treatment strategies because I think people are more comfortable considering all the social factors that play a role in smoking. We need to understand the mechanisms of the biology more precisely or at least manipulate those factors more precisely to help people achieve smoking cessation.”

Like all the BIRCWH Scholars, DeVito’s work seeks real-world applications to help people live better lives.

“The point is there are clinical applications,” DeVito said, referring as an example to her pending study to determine whether a medication could decrease nicotine withdrawal symptoms in women. “Such as considering when you start a treatment program or use medications. Or just knowing what your risk factors are.”

DeVito praised the Yale BIRCWH Program for its focus on mentorship, noting that she benefited greatly from the guidance of Drs. Mazure and Samuel Ball and that she continues to work closely with Drs. Carroll and Mehmet Sofuoglu. She also expressed gratitude for the opportunity to build relationships among her fellow Scholars.

“They encouraged us to get to know each other, learn peer science and peer interactions,” DeVito said. “Our generation will be the next mentors and Principal Investigators all interacting with each other. The BIRCWH Program gave me an opportunity to work with these other Scholars who were amazing and had different areas of interest from my own.”

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Submitted by Carissa R Violante on July 15, 2016